Introspective Retrospective

Posted by: Daniel Tucker

Introspective Retrospective
Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries A Retrospective
Threewalls, Chicago
January 10 – February 22, 2014
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by Daniel Tucker

Reaching to eight feet off the ground and over four-and-a-half feet wide, the painting Red Tongue (1979) sets the table. Dinner guests soon trickle in, including Nancy Spero, Sharon Hayes, Leanard Cohen, William Blake, Antonin Artaud, Agnes Martin, and Eva Hesse – all of whom have Untitled Tear watercolor drawings made in their honor. The Inspiritors (2009-2010) looking over the gathering include “Mum and Gran” alongside Virginia Woolf and Emma Goldman. The first course is ready to come out, a trio of intricate drawings titled Blood Transformation Mysteries (1973) offers a scent of what is to come – this will be research, this will be spiritual and this will be about life. The guest of honor, Faith Wilding, arrives to applause and we begin our meal around a series of tables filled with four decades of her drawings and archives, ready and waiting to ingest her life story.

It may seem misguided, or sexist, to draw out this dinner party metaphor. Wilding is not Judy Chicago and she is not a caterer. But this is her first retrospective exhibition, and she made the world that we get to temporarily inhabit, she invites and therefore she is also our host. In addition to the exhibition at Chicago’s premier non-profit arts organization, Threewalls, the six week program curated by Shannon Stratton included two screenings from Wilding’s archives at the The Nightingale Theater and a reading from her forthcoming memoir at University of Illinois Chicago’s Gallery 400. The festivities opened with a dialogue between Wilding and Irina Aristarkhova at the gallery and closed with another dialogue on the theme of “Politics of Making” with Harmony Hammond and Ellen Rothenberg. Amidst it all, a local feminist art collective, Tracers, hosted a symposium in the gallery, and Wilding was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art at the College Art Association’s annual conference. For six weeks in the third coldest and snowiest winter in recorded history, it was certainly Wilding’s dinner party in Chicago.

Some of the most striking work as you proceed into the main gallery, is revealed through the contrasting scales of the installations, including one wall with only the Moth Triptych (1974) next to another wall of 92 small Rorschach prints from 2013. The transgender bodies in excerpts from the Daily Text series of the late 1980s predict an audience that had not yet come into its own, as it is hard for me to see this work without the context of the explosion of now highly celebrated and visible Queer aesthetic experiments of the last decade ranging from Wu Tsang and Edit Fake to Carlos Motta and Andrea Geyer. The imagery of Cocoon, Vagina, Penis, Moth, Leaves, Tears, Women, Menstruation, and Horses with armor offers a symbolic journey through many phases of consciousness from the essential to the queer to the cyborg. Not that there is a linear trajectory visible in the work, Wilding is clearly grappling with similar themes of the spirit, body and science today as she was in the 1970s, even if she has moved on to new forms.

A decade ago, when she was living in Chicago, Wilding and I formed a bond around our common experience of being born children of Christian missionaries in Latin America. Admittedly, her experience immigrating as a child during World War 2 of parents immigrated from England to a remote Bruderhof commune in Paraguay, was remarkably different than my experience, living in Buenos Aires as a kid nearly 40 years later. In the reading from her memoir, Faith shared details of a childs life where “most of what we used, we made ourselves” including leather work and braided native flax plants, and “the entire village was surrounded by a fence and females go outside it without male escort.” The isolation, nearly two hours from any other village, inspired a great yearning for something more. “We didn’t have any full length mirrors” she recounts, not knowing what her body looked like and without many materials to work with, she drew bodies only from imagination (as she does to this day) in the red clay earth that was the floor of her room.

Describing her initial motives for making the Waiting (1972) performance at the month-long Womanhouse installation in Los Angeles, Wilding recalls in conversation with Irina Aristarkhova that it came directly from her childhood in Paraguay, “The waiting that I was thinking of more than anything was the waiting I did as a teenager…I was waiting to get out, I wanted to get out of there. At a certain point I realized there was a whole world out there, and the only way I knew the world was through books.” The original Waiting poem was inspired partly by her study of Samuel Beckett’s characters who are stuck and immobile, yet also have the ability to inspire hope and empathy. Considering the famous last sentence of The Unnamable (1954) “Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” she explained that she was left “thinking what would be the female version of some of Beckett’s characters?”

Excerpt from Waiting (1972)
Waiting for him to give me pleasure
Waiting for him to give me an orgasm

Waiting for my baby to sleep through the night
Waiting for my breasts to dry up
Waiting to get my figure back, for the stretch marks to go away

Waiting to grow wise
Waiting . . .
Waiting for my body to break down, to get ugly
Waiting for my flesh to sag

Waiting to get sick
Waiting for things to get better
Waiting for winter to end
Waiting for the mirror to tell me that I’m old

The enduring popularity of the Waiting piece still surprises her, “I get 2-3 emails a week, still, from people who have just discovered Waiting and want to perform it at their school. We’ve been talking about why a lot of different people could relate to it in different ways.” She continued, “I was so young when I did that performance and the way the filmmaker filmed it, the camera is so focused mainly at the audience and that adds a lot to the effect of the piece.” Wilding describes that the work came about because of the conditions of collectivity of the time, explaining that “[we] made a list of what everyone in Womanhouse was waiting for and then it evolved into a monologue. I didn’t consider that it was really my piece, but I felt I was speaking for women and speaking for a certain condition that at that time we were analyzing with a feminist point of view. It’s one of the things I’ve become known for and [because] I felt that I had done other work, I had to separate myself from that condition because I myself was no longer in that position (of passive waiting).”

Moving on
When we met, Faith Wilding was my performance art teacher. At the time, I’d never heard of Waiting, or Womanhouse, and I had no idea she was a painter. She was teaching a course entitled Next Bodies, which grew out of her engagement with the world of interventionist “tactical media”. With her “cyber feminist” collective subRosa, Wilding had spent the better part of a decade inserting a feminist perspective into the often male-dominated discourse around the intersections of art, activism and technology. The group received a Creative Capital grant and produced Biopower Unlimited (2002) on the campus of Bowling Green State University, a mapping project that drew out the connections between the life-sciences on campus and factory farming in nearby rural Ohio. subRosa’s installation for The Interventionists at Mass MoCA, Can You See Us Now? (2004), incorporated aerial maps of Juarez, Mexico and North Adams, Massachusetts that explored what happened to women’s lives in each locale as a result of industrial outsourcing. Their brilliantly executed “forensic floor” encouraged the audience to investigate the question for themselves by lifting up secret doors, while the elegantly simple “Clothing Tag Map” invited people to remove their clothing labels and pin them to a world map based on the location of its manufacture (the project was so popular the museum had to regularly clear the large map of tags to start the process over). Both of these projects were re-presented in the archive room of Wilding’s exhibition, curated by Threewalls Associate Director, Abigail Satinsky.

From my perspective, Wilding was a much-needed mentor, helping me to come into my own as an artist and organize, with the lessons learned from her pioneering years at the Feminist Art Program in Fresno (1970-71) and CalArts (1971-73) up through her engagement with the nascent World Wide Web in the early ‘90s to the tactical media scene of the late 1990s. Years later, when co-teaching my own course on the history of Tactical Media, it was Faith who looked at the syllabus and critiqued its lack of feminist or cyber-feminist references and saying that she knew I was aware of these histories and it was my responsibility to perpetuate them and teach about them.

Never shying away from bringing up her love of literature in her teaching, studying with Wilding offered an important reminder for my young activist mind that politics and poetics could be mutually enriching. She also encouraged an engagement with the sensual and convivial pleasures of life. On my twenty-first birthday Faith declared that we must do something to mark the occasion that would be a coming of age, sarcastically remarking that I needed to become a man, while taking me on a trip to a local butcher. I was still a recovering vegetarian at the time, thus my step into the meat locker to pick out “my pig” lightened my skin color with a bit of nausea But I managed to get the job done. Excited to use and read aloud her new Fergus Henderson cookbook on “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail eating”, it was time for my friends to gather for a pig roast with Faith as the host.

Working It Out
As a teacher now myself, I cannot really imagine celebrating any student’s 21st birthday with them, but I deeply appreciate that someone did so for me. As anyone who teaches knows, there are limits to what you can learn about art and certainly about being an artist, by staying in the classroom. How one lives is fundamental to how one works, and Wilding was well aware of that. Letting people see some of that inner life can help to alleviate the isolation experienced by consistently presenting as an expert, a professional, or an elder. In one of her series of watercolor and collage works Untitled Tears (2009) Wilding handwrote a quotation from Emma Goldman found in a 1929 letter to her despairing lover, “To do our work lightly, or to be haunted by the thought that it does not matter because life does not matter, would mean that we could do no work at all, writing or otherwise. And without the work we care about, life itself would be impossible. It certainly would be to me.”

For the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Wilding wrote about her motivation to begin making the “tears” series:

My small watercolors and photo collages were motivated by the desire to evoke sensations and feelings about personal histories, desire, sadness, longing, and tenderness; and of being connected through our tears to a collective grief with others both living and dead. I wanted the way the tears were painted to look bruised and juicy, and the colors to communicate the passionate attachments and memories, both personal and collective, that underlie my work… At a symposium on “Disruptions: Art and the Political” (MCA, Chicago, 2009), the speakers explored questions like: Where is the political in art now? How can our work be contemplative and discursive, emotional and critical simultaneously? Gregg Bordowitz spoke about the importance of having a theory of emotions when doing political work, and that our political sadness commits us to embrace difficulty. He challenged the audience to use our collective grief in our work, to in effect “see the world through our tears.” This resonated with what motivated me to make the “tears” — work that will never be finished.

In her finale event, in dialogue on “The politics of making”, Wilding reflected on the surprise with which many people had approached her retrospective exhibition – not knowing she had a “private” painting and drawing practice. She explained that along the way, especially as she was increasingly presenting herself as a collective performer and tactical media artist, this work was “generative and it satisfies something else to work differently. You can do very different work collectively and yet privately there is still a lot to investigate that really sustains my spirit and comforts me. The doing of it is very generative and absorbing. It can put me in conflict with my collective because it seems like I am defecting. It is a really interesting tension…Although it is quite related to the issues and questions of the collective work, it is different and comes from a very different source and way of doing and satisfies another part of me.”

Thinking back to the Emma Goldman letter, first immortalized in her 1983 biography by Candace Falk and then again by the “tear” piece, there is a resonance between the idea of “working lightly” or without confidence, and Wilding’s suggestion that life is more complete when she can marry these two ways of working and creating. Many research-oriented artists I know, seem to lament the lack of making that they are able to engage in and, similarly, many makers have recounted to me their anxieties about satisfying their inner-worlds while sacrificing greater efficacy on social and political fronts afforded by more activist art. In the same issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G referenced earlier, Wilding suggests that “One of the dangers of living the over-examined life is that like so many other comrades and seekers, I am haunted by the unanswered global question: What is to be Done? I translate this into the personal/political question: What is my work, and why am I doing it?”

On the occasion of her first retrospective, which curator Stratton points out is importantly sub-titled “A Retrospective”, Wilding offers her insights into the question of “What is my work?” In looking at her rich life of creative work, spanning the gallery space from the Blood Transformation Mysteries to the cyber-feminist archives of subRosa, there is a consistently complex flavor found throughout this dinner. From the menstrual cycle, to the science of genetically engineered foods, there is an impulse towards researching the technologies and materials of life. Through Wilding’s convivial exhibition, we are able to see how this impulse is explored through a more inward looking private practice alongside a more socially-engaged collective one. It appears that the work which looks more like introspection enables the more didactic, making them interdependent. That this complicity is revealed in one artist’s work, should offer hope to those anxious and longing artists who have isolated themselves into one camp. Afterall, Faith Wilding wants it all – the whole beast, and so can you.

Daniel Tucker works as an artist, organizer, teacher and writer in Philadelphia.

Featured image:
Faith Wilding, courtesy of Threewalls and the artist.


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